When people who were beloved in life die, they’re never truly gone. There is no greater example of that than the lives of Alison Parker and Adam Ward.
Though the WDBJ journalists met their untimely end as victims in a calculated shooting by a disgruntled former employee while on live TV in August, that memory pales in comparison to the tremendous gifts they left behind.
Their legacies of dedication, talent, kindness and intelligence are what continue to define Alison and Adam. Their killer, who took his own life soon after he took theirs, will never have a trial aside from the court of public opinion. He sentenced himself to death and an ignoble legacy that demonstrates the worst of what people are capable of.
For Adam and Alison, they survive in the memories of those who knew and loved them best, and with thousands of others who only knew them through the news.
A Bright Light
“She was the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever met,” said Alison’s boyfriend, Chris Hurst, a WDBJ anchor. “But she did not want to be known for her looks, she wanted to be known for her brains; and her brains she had in equal measure to her beauty. And that’s what I fell in love with.
“She was smart, she was fierce and tenacious and cared deeply about others. That’s what I loved most about her.”
Hurst, who was living with Parker at the time of her death, had less than nine months with her. But to hear him remember that time period sounds as though they were together for years.
“We were both at a time in our life when we were looking for somebody to really connect with on a very deep level,” he said of their relationship. Hurst is an anchor and Parker was the morning reporter, though he said she often worked on digging deeper to find stories with a broader impact.
Before Alison started her work as a TV reporter for WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., in 2014, she worked as the bureau chief for WCTI 12 in Jacksonville, N.C.
In her time at WDBJ, she was the main contributor for “Childhood Lost,” an hourlong special about child abuse and neglect that aired in mid-August, shortly before her death. She was also working on a series about hospice care that she didn’t have the chance to finish.
For Hurst, Alison’s dedication to her craft was a significant part of their connection. Fundamentally the two related with each other on a deep level over their work as journalists.
“In news, just like in other professions, the people who you relate to the most, who you can confide in the most, who understand you the most are the ones who share a similar passion,” he said. “She was absolutely without question passionate about journalism, passionate about TV news, and we shared that in common.”
Alison’s mother, Barbara Parker, thinks most often of her daughter’s love of life and her “quirky” sense of humor.
“Alison had a smile that could light up a room, but she wanted to be known as more than the pretty blonde reporter. She was a journalist,” Barbara Parker said via email. “She was passionate about her work, her family and life itself. She lived more in 24 years than many people do in a lifetime.”
Though hundreds of comments have been left on a WDBJ memorial page for the journalists, one of the greatest testaments to Alison and Adam are the numerous charity events and scholarship funds that have been established in their names.
The most notable among those are programs at her alma maters: the Alison Parker Memorial Scholarship at James Madison University and the Alison Bailey Parker Memorial Scholarship at Patrick Henry Community College.
Barbara Parker hopes that young reporters who learn of Alison’s story will be inspired.
“[My advice is] do more than report the news,” she said. “Tell the stories that matter. Be the change. You have a voice that has more influence than you realize. And along the way, don’t forget to live and experience life as though it was your last day on earth.”
The ‘Most Enthusiastic’
Scholarships have also been established in Adam’s name, including the Salem Educational Foundation and Alumni Association’s nearly $50,000 fund through Salem High School, from which he graduated in 2007.
The money is part of a larger endowment that will go to a graduate of the high school on his or her way to Virginia Tech, Adam’s alma mater. The 27-year-old cameraman started as a sports department intern at WDBJ and worked as a reporter, videographer and production assistant. The Virginia Tech Foundation has also established a fund in his name.
His family and loved ones have remained private since Adam’s death — both his parents and his fiancée, WDBJ producer Melissa Ott, declined requests to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement published after Adam’s death, his family did say how much they valued the global outpouring of sentiment toward their son.
“Please know how much we appreciate your support,” the statement read. “The prayers, respect and expression of love we have received from people around the world, many of whom we will never meet, have been incredibly humbling.”
Others who knew Adam have spoken more openly about the boy they remember from the community, and the man he became.
“Adam’s death shocked the community,” said Scott Habeeb, principal of Salem High School. Habeeb knew Adam from the time he was in middle school. “There is no silver lining in a tragedy, but the reality is when something awful happens, it does give people the opportunity to show what it means to love people within a community.”
Habeeb remembers Adam as someone who was not necessarily a stereotypical popular kid, yet drew others to him with his generous spirit and unflappable enthusiasm. It led him to be known and loved by everyone.
“He was fun and happy and kind, and it really paid off in terms of the impact it had on others,” he said.
Yet it wasn’t always that way. As a young boy, Adam lived in a neighboring community where he was picked on in middle school. He was a small kid. He had a speech impediment. His parents switched him to the Salem school district, and it was there that he found kindred spirits who now claim him as a native son.
“The kids in Salem really embraced him right away, they took him in and made him one of their own,” Habeeb said. “He just blossomed because other kids loved him, and he just loved other people well his whole life as a result.”
That love and heart for life never diminished. Habeeb recalls vividly how Adam, who also played football in school, “could make any situation fun.” He continued to come by his old school, especially when filming video of football games.
“He was the most enthusiastic about whatever he was doing,” he said. “He was the most enthusiastic kid to play football. He was the most enthusiastic to root for Virginia Tech events. He was enthusiastic and had a huge smile.”
Though Habeeb acknowledges that Adam’s and Alison’s deaths were “all anybody could talk about for a while” in Salem, he believes the community learned a powerful lesson from how Adam lived his life.
“This tragedy should never have happened, but when you live your life right, when you live your life in a way that impacts others positively, when you love others well in your life, then even in a tragic death your life has great power.”
As in other high-profile shootings in the United States in recent years, the shooting deaths of Adam and Alison on live television raised difficult and ugly questions — questions about gun violence, social norms and whether there is any way to curb the violence of mass shootings.
Alison’s mother has strong opinions on the subject.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the killing of Alison and Adam on live television shocked the nation into talking about the staggering number of deaths by gun violence in this country — a topic that has been taboo for so long,” she said.
Though she feels that journalists have done well discussing the topic of safety within the journalism industry, she argues that more needs to be done.
“It’s not a matter of ‘stuff happens’ anymore. This is a matter of life and death for all of us,” she said. “If we accept these deaths by gun violence as collateral damage, what does that say about us as a society?”
WDBJ news director Kelly Zuber has also spoken out about the difficulties she and her staff continue to face. Since the shooting on Aug. 26, staff at the station have continued to get threats by email and in personal encounters. In a sense, they’ve had to re-think how they do the news.
“Vester Flanagan raised the bar on murder,” Zuber said during a panel discussion at the joint SPJ-RTDNA-NAHJ Excellence in Journalism Conference in September. (Zuber did not respond to request to be interviewed for this story.)
“We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to raise the bar on journalism, because this [modern practice of] recording what you’re doing is a fairly new phenomenon, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s the last time we’re going to see it,” Zuber said during the panel.
In addition to Adam’s live feed, Flanagan recorded a point-of-view video of the murder in which he can be seen casually walking up behind Adam as he takes video and points his gun at Alison while she’s conducting an interview, recording the shootings from a first-person perspective. He later posted it on social media while on the run from police.
Zuber said the station has since worked on changing how they position themselves during live shots to provide more protection. To begin with, in the weeks following, they did fewer live shots. They are also working with security professionals to learn how to work more safely, including learning how to look for escape routes and objects to get behind. They also stay inside more than they used to, have stopped promoting where their teams in the field will be broadcasting from, and are using teams as protection.
As their new reality sets in, Zuber said recovering from what happened will take time.
“We are healing slowly, gradually, but we are still not up to top form yet.”
Others believe that the industry needs to start taking a much more serious look at security.
“We know from covering the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore [that] it’s been dangerous for journalists in the United States,” Frank Smyth said. Smyth is the founder and executive director of Global Journalist Security and senior advisor for journalist security at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, where he blogs about security for journalists.
“It sent a chilling ripple effect through domestic-based media. I think some security managers and others have realized that it’s not just people going overseas who are at risk.”
While Smyth points out that in other countries, journalists are targeted with “alarming frequency,” applying tactics similar to what WDBJ is now using can be helpful. Yet it must go beyond that.
“There’s another problem here, which is the access to firearms in society,” he said, pointing out that the shooter was partially motivated by the horrific church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in June. “That’s a problem that goes beyond just targeting press.”
Though functioning law enforcement sets the U.S. apart — there have been less than a dozen journalist murders in the U.S. in the past 30 years compared to the 763 documented murders globally since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — there is still a problem.
“I think 20 years ago people tended to respect the press a great deal more than they do now,” Smyth said. “The level of vitriol that we’ve seen against the press coming from a lot of quarters, combined with easy access to firearms, is a very dangerous concoction.”
Smyth’s response: Have serious discussions in newsrooms and think through common-sense safety measures, host workshops and serious industry discussions, and start training journalists to be safe.
Chris Hurst said female journalists in particular need more protection than they currently have.
“We need to make sure that women especially are better protected, and there’s an acknowledgement made by news organizations that women who are in the public eye and any female journalist is a public person,” he said. “We need to make sure that they get all the resources they need not to get harassed. There’s always attempts to subvert them. There at least needs to be an acknowledgement [of that].”
According to Hurst, Alison complained to him regularly about the four or five vulgar comments she would receive daily from unknown men on Facebook. The day before she was killed, he said, a strange man who recognized her from television aggressively approached her at a gas station to fill her gas tank.
“She complained openly about it to me, and when it came time to figure out something to do for it, it was like, ‘Well, what the hell are you supposed to do?’”
Though he notes that these types of encounters were not necessarily a factor in her death, he does want to see women shielded more.
“I do think we need to do a better job protecting women from the misogyny in our culture,” he said.
Legacy of Comments
Wherever the industry discussion leads or whatever changes are made in terms of safety and security, the lives that Adam and Alison lived remain undiminished by their deaths.
Nowhere is this legacy as obvious as in the comments left online by some of the thousands of viewers who knew Alison’s face and Adam’s camerawork from watching the morning news. Over 800 comments have been left on WDBJ’s commemoration page for Alison and Adam.
“From what I have seen, Alison seemed like such a joyful person,” viewer Fred Staffeld wrote. “I can see that the morning audience just adored her, and she will be missed. Alison also touched my life. May both Alison and Adam rest in peace.”
On the Salem Educational Foundation page, friends and strangers have shared thoughts of grief as well, but mostly of love.
“Adam was a very special person we were lucky to know and call a friend,” Aaron Martin and Katie Love wrote. “We hope this scholarship fund helps keep his memory alive and strong at Salem High School.”
Genevieve Belmaker is a regular Quill contributor and freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She reports on crime, terrorism and the journalism industry. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @gen_belmaker